It is natural to interpret Skeleton Tree through the prism of paternal grief, as an elegy for Arthur, Cave’s 15-year-old son, who fell to his death at Ovingdean Gap in July 2015 as the record’s initial recording sessions were ending, but the album is more than that. By mid-2015, most of the writing – as well as a good chunk of recording – had already been completed for the record, and this indicates that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds had already set about creating a complex and challenging record before the family tragedy unfolded. Lyrics were amended – understandably reflecting on Cave’s grief – in later recording sessions, but the album wasn’t drastically re-written.
From the start, Skeleton Tree is brooding and dark, opening with the throb and drone of Jesus Alone. For nearly 6 minutes, the track repeats a simply sonic motif that unexpectedly captivates as it turns a dirge into a meditation, with Cave’s lyrics departing from his usual narrative approach, entering allegorical and stream of consciousness territory. It feels like it shouldn’t work, but there is no doubting that it does. Rings Of Saturn, with its flirtation with electro-pop and spacey, psychedelic, sounds jars in juxtaposition to Jesus Alone, and clearly demonstrates that the listener needs to be prepared for anything.
The Bad Seeds strut their stuff on Magneto, which is expertly layered, with an acoustic guitar adding an ethereal element that stands out nicely against, and softens, the darker tones surrounding it. Grief is placed in the real world of the everyday on I Need You and Girl In Amber, two songs that feel the most directly related to the death of Cave’s son. The album suffers a burst of energy – albeit anxious energy – with the cacophonous, arrhythmic loops of Anthrocene, which fall in and out of sync with each other in an oddly compelling manner. It is all rather fitting given the song is named for the current geological epoch; shaped and dominated by humanities hand, although in that context the single, crystalline piano chord that resolves the song takes on a rather ominous tone.
Danish Baroque singer, Else Torp, provided additional vocals on Distant Sky, and the sweetness and warmth of her voice cuts through the album’s gloom, signalling a light at the end of the tunnel and marking, not an end to the sadness, but a coming to grips with it. For that, Distant Sky acts as the perfect pivot for the record as it leads directly into the titular Skeleton Tree, the final song, and the one that sounds most like a typical track from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. It is apparent that Skeleton Tree was always going to be a challenging album for the listener, but it is an album that ultimately rewards those who apply themselves to it, and it will further prove the brilliance of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.